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New Research Provides More Depth on Virginity Pledges, but Reveals Similar Limitations

Description:
 
This study adds to a growing body of research on the effects of virginity pledges on teen sexual behavior and health.  In 2001, researchers conducted a national phone survey of 1,105 youth ages 12-17. They then re-interviewed them one and three years later. Researchers looked at how teens who were inclined to postpone sexual debut and took a virginity pledge compared to teens who were inclined to postpone sexual debut but did not take a virginity pledge. Specifically, they looked at these teens’ initiation of vaginal intercourse and condom use, as well as other sexual experiences.
 
In order to more vigorously investigate whether making a virginity pledge actually delays the initiation of sexual intercourse or whether those who choose to make a pledge are simply more inclined to postpone sexual debut to begin with, the researchers looked closely at a number of variables that are known to affect either the likelihood that a teen will become sexual active or will make a virginity pledge, or both. These factors included demographic variables, religiosity, parental monitoring, sexual knowledge, perceived parental and peer approval of sex, and expectations of positive outcomes from sex.
 
Source:
Steven C. Martino, et al., “Virginity Pledges Among the Willing: Delays in First Intercourse and Consistency of Condom Use,” Journal of Adolescent Health (Epub, June 5, 2008): 1-8.
 
Key Findings:
  • Youth who chose to take a virginity pledge tended to be more religious, were more monitored by their parents, had friends and parents who were more likely to be opposed to their having sex, were more likely to be involved in clubs and activities, and were less likely to expect positive outcomes from having sex than their peers.
  • When re-interviewed three years later, 42% of those teens who were inclined to postpone sexual debut but had not made a virginity pledge had engaged in vaginal intercourse compared to 34% of those who were inclined to postpone sexual debut and had made a virginity pledge.
  • The researchers concluded that, after controlling for self-selection, making a pledge lessened the probability of sexual debut by 8%, from 42% to 34%.
  • Teens who made a virginity pledge were just as likely to report non-coital sexual behavior, such as oral or anal sex, as those who did not make a pledge.
  • Teens who made a virginity pledge but then reported engaging in sexual activity were just as likely to report using a condom consistently over the past year as were those who did not make a pledge.

SIECUS Analysis:

This study is the latest in a series of studies that seek to determine the effect of virginity pledges on teens. Previous research has yielded mixed results on both the effectiveness of virginity pledges in delaying sexual initiation among teens and on their possible harmful consequences for future sexual behavior and health. Peter Bearman of Columbia University and Hanah Bruckner of Yale University have published a number of valuable studies on the subject. This latest study supports and expands upon many of Bearman and Bruckner’s findings.  

This new research makes a valuable contribution to our knowledge by seeking to isolate the effect of virginity pledges on teen behavior and contains some hopeful findings. The researchers note that the question they are investigating is a quite narrow one: “[A]mong a group of youth who are already inclined to delay intercourse relative to other youth, does the act of a making a virginity pledge further delay their debut?”[1] Their results indicate that it does—to a modest degree. By rigorously attempting to remove self-selection bias, the researchers provide evidence that among a small group of teens who are already prone to delay the initiation of vaginal intercourse, making a virginity pledge can, in fact, help them further postpone sexual debut.
 
The results also show that virginity pledges may not lead to inconsistent condom use in the future, as previous research has suggested. While it is heartening that this study found that pledgers have the same rates of condom use as their peers, it is important to note that this study measures only condom use in the past year, not contraceptive use at first sex. Bearman and Bruckner’s results show that virginity pledgers are significantly less likely to use a condom the first time they initiate sexual intercourse.[2] The authors of this new study note that while it is possible that pledgers are less likely to use a condom at first sex, their results suggest that once they do initiate intercourse they “educate themselves and begin to carry and use condoms for subsequent encounters.”[3] However, as contraceptive use at first sex is a strong indicator of future use, Bearman and Bruckner’s results remain worrisome. In addition, self-reported measures of sexual behavior are always uncertain. As the researchers warn, “Teens who made a pledge and then broke it may not have been completely forthcoming about their sexual behavior.”[4]
 
Although the findings on condom use are encouraging, the authors do not measure health-seeking behavior or STD prevalence. Bearman and Bruckner have found that though pledgers have the same rates of STDs as non-pledgers, they are less likely to seek medical testing and treatment.[5] This study does not explore these issues.
 
While this study provides an interesting analysis of the effects of pledging on a select group of teens who are already inclined to postpone sexual debut, it does not speak to the broader impact of virginity pledges and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Virginity pledges remain a cornerstone of programs that rely on fear and shame to control behavior, create a dichotomy between “moral” teens who abstain from sexual intercourse and “immoral” teens who don’t, and leave all youth—pledgers and nonpledgers—woefully unprepared to make healthy sexual decisions whenever they do become sexually active.


[1] Steven C. Martino, et al., “Virginity Pledges Among the Willing: Delays in First Intercourse and Consistency of Condom Use,” Journal of Adolescent Health (Epub June 5, 2008): 5.
[2] Peter Bearman and Hanah Bruckner, “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and the Transition to First Intercourse,” American Journal of Sociology 106.4 (2001): 859-912.
[3] Martino, et al., “Virginity Pledges Among the Willing,” 6.
[4] Martino, et al., “Virginity Pledges Among the Willing,” 7.
[5] Peter Bearman and Hanah Bruckner, “After the Promise: The STD Consequences of Adolescent Virginity Pledges,” Journal of Adolescent Health 36.4 (2005): 271-278.
 

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